April 17, 2012

The Omar Hammami Saga Continues

Hammami sits right of Mukhtar Robow during al-Shabaab's post-bin Laden conference

Roughly a month after tumbling into a hazy situation, Omar Hammami finds himself at the center of fresh media speculation. al-Shabaab's most visible and successful American recruit landed in Mogadishu in 2006 and established himself as a propagandist/field commander during Ethiopia's occupation. Now he's engulfed by propaganda, with no concrete information available since Hammami first posted a YouTube video claiming that his life was in danger. This silence broke two days ago when the Gedo Times reported an April 5th execution, but al-Shabaab has issued no comment (or Tweet) and Washington is still searching for evidence.

"I have not heard anything other than what I’ve read in the newspaper,” Hammami's father, Shafik, said from his home in Daphne, Alabama. “We are like anyone else. We haven’t had any confirmation."

Bill Roggio, founder and editor of the Long War Journal, counts himself amongst the skeptics. Hammami has survived two near-death experiences and the lack of publicity is abnormal for Somalia's intense information sphere. Roggio also cites a “very well-connected” who "doesn’t believe it’s true." Regardless of his current situation, Hammami will continue to be monitored by those probing for divisions within al-Shabaab's structure. Beyond the mysterious circumstances surrounding Hammami's alleged death, no one is sure where the execution order came from or who carried it out. Earlier speculation postulated that Hammami had angered al-Shabaab's nationalist core, led by Mukhtar Robow, after siding with its al-Qaeda faction, but the latest reports have Muktar "Godane" Zubeyr ordering the execution.

The transnationalist-minded Zubyer was demoted from al-Shabaab's top position in December 2010 but maintains command of al-Shabaab's foreign branch. He's also responsible for transmitting the group's two oaths to al-Qaeda, and several Somali analysts claim that Zubeyr was promoted to regional commander after Fazul Abdullah Mohammed's death in June 2011.

Why Zubeyr would turn on Hammami isn't readily discernible, but his potential death appears have upset Zubeyr's opposition instead. Gedo Online reported that the insurgency's leadership became collectively aware of his death after he missed a high-level meeting. The group's third seat, Fuad Mohamed Qalaf (Fuad Shongoole), reportedly fled to the Galgala Mountains and is attracting militants to northern Puntland (a trend that Somalia's Transitional Federal Government attributes to the group's disarray). Qalaf has accused Zubeyr of harboring "hidden agendas" in the past, warning him that "fighting everyone is not part of the solution," and counts himself as Robow's ally. His speech followed a series of cannibalistic clashes between al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, whose commander was soon coerced into the group. Hassan Dahir Aweys and Robow both left their meeting in protest, according to Gedo Online, and Aweys would later condemn the group for assassinating two government ministers.

The veteran politician/jihadist has battled Zubeyr for control of Somalia's militancy since al-Shabaab broke off from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2007, only to be brought into the group at gunpoint and demoted.

Abdi Aynte, a Somali journalist with Al Jazeera English, has raised the possibility of Robow and Aweys splintering off to challenge Godane outright, in addition to opening a dialogue with the TFG. This split impairs a more coherent insurgency and could generate major disruptions in the group's defense of its remaining territory. However these tensions have also persisted for years and could be maxed out until a formal split occurs. Just like Hammami's status, African commanders and regional observers alike must allow time to reveal the extent of al-Shabaab's fractures.

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